Welcome to the “Affiliate Marketing Legends” ! This new interview series of mine seeks to highlight the movers and shakers of affiliate marketing — those influencers who have been shaping our industry, contributing to it in multiple meaningful ways. As I interview these affiliate marketing heavyweights, I will seek to spotlight both inspirational/motivational information, and also truly actionable and practical knowledge that they possess. At the end of the day, it is my hope that these interviews will help shape the direction(s) in which the affiliate marketing industry goes and grows thereafter.
My today’s guest is James Little. I’ve known him for as long as I’ve been in affiliate marketing, and it’s been some time. So, along with a few other “long-livers” James was one of the first people that I’ve reached out to with an invitation to an “Affiliate Marketing Legends” interview. For those of you who may benefit from it, here is his brief profile:
Name: James Little
Current Role: Group Commercial Director
Place: London, United Kingdom
Find him at
GP: When and how did you get into affiliate marketing?
JL: So unlike a lot of my colleagues and friends, I didn’t go down the traditional university/college route.
I went out at the age of 17 and started working full time – initially doing temp work (the low-light was a week of filing documents for a lift company in East Ham) and then eventually joining a company called One.Tel.
were a telecoms company headquartered in Australia and one of the unique parts of the company was that all their recruitment is done internally – so every single person started in sales or customer service and you were able to apply for any other role after 6 months of starting. I transferred internally to become a web developer which I did for five years and during that period I learnt about affiliate marketing – both from integrating tracking code for the business and building a few sites of my own. I soon realised that the world of webdev was changing as it started to be more about databases, sql, php, and so on – and that this wasn’t really for me, so I moved on and started a role at a company called Field & Trek as their first Internet Marketing Manager.
That was around 16 years ago now. Affiliates was a small part of my job but the bit that I enjoyed the most as the industry was vibrant and full of amazing people so after a year or so I moved on and became a full-time affiliate manager. In my career so far I’ve worked for an advertiser, setup an affiliate operation at a white-label gaming business, run an affiliate team for a large media agency, headed up client services for an affiliate network and finally I joined TopCashback almost 8 years ago to go publisher side as their first Partnership Director, opening our central London office.
Back when I was interviewed for the web-developer role at One.Tel one of the questions I was asked was “What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?” and the answer was easy – doing something that I enjoyed and was passionate about and all these years later I still love the industry and the opportunities it brings.
TopCashback has also changed a lot since I joined. I was employee number 35 and we had 750,000 UK members… now in 2018 we have over 200 staff across five offices and just over 10m members across TopCashback and our white label partners across the UK, USA, China, India, Ireland and Norway – becoming one of the largest affiliate publishers in the world.
GP: If there was no affiliate marketing, what would you likely focus your efforts on?
JP: As people that know me, or have been out for a night out with me know well, I love a bit of karaoke – so if the online world didn’t exist, I think I’d like to be a singer on a cruise liner… there is still hope for me yet I feel, but not sure how my top karaoke song, Eminem’s Stan, would go down with the cruise liner guests.
Outside of that, one of the areas that I find the most fascinating at the moment is probably influencer marketing. We started working in this space at the start of this year and it’s became a great source of new customers for us and because it’s so new and dynamic it’s constantly changing, reminding me a lot of the early days of affiliate marketing; having a bit of an unfair bad-reputation but huge potential. I’m excited to see how this industry changes and grows up over the next few years, especially with more regulation on it’s way. It’s also interesting how affiliate marketing is trying to embrace influencers but I’m not certain how well this will do as I worry that the cost per sale model isn’t the most effective for a lot of influencers. Could probably write a whole article on that topic alone but that’s for next time…
GP: For more than a dozen of years that you’ve been in affiliate marketing, what problems have never (really) been fully resolved and still represent “open questions”? Let’s dive deeper into the questions raised in your recent LinkedIn post as well as other high-priority things that still haven’t been fully sorted out within our industry.
JL: Product feeds is definitely on my agenda at the moment and I do think it’s time that more people got involved to think about how we can work collectively in the industry to tackle the issues. I won’t delve too much into that on this interview because I’ve covered it off pretty well in the Linkedin post that you’ve mentioned and there are a lot of comments that make for interesting reading.
The other thing that I would like to mention though is the future of the IAB in the UK and industry collaboration overall.
For those unaware around 10 years ago now, the UK affiliate industry got together with the IAB to create what is now known as the IAB Affiliate Council.
At the time it was groundbreaking – seeing affiliate networks talk to each other properly for the first time and look at how we could fix some of the challenges that we had within the industry… and it worked – helping clear up some of the bad practices in the voucher/coupon space at the time with the launch of the Voucher/Coupon site Code of conduct.
But years later that collaboration seems to have gone and I’d love to see us bring it back – be it via the IAB or via another route. I’m also really interested to see how the Performance Marketing Association continues to develop in the USA market who have some similar challenges and opportunities ahead.
I also think that publishers need to talk a lot more to each other. We all have similar issues with things like delayed payments, untracked sales, ITP, and so on… It’s going to be a tough to make this happen because of how competitive we are all but I think we’ll see some breakthroughs into 2019 that will make a real difference in the market if we can get together and talk more.
GP: While you primarily work in the UK, I see you (and TopCashback’s team) being pretty active on the US affiliate marketing landscape. How are these two geo-markets different?
JL: We launched in the USA 7 years ago but have been having a proper go for about 5 years after a fairly slow start. We’ve now grown to the point that we’re in the top 10 (or often top 5) publishers on most programmes and second only to the likes of Ebates in the cashback space.
I think a lot of people in the UK seem to feel that the USA still represents the wild west of affiliate marketing, mainly due to all the “CPA networks” that you see exhibiting at some of the USA conferences. I feel this is a little unfair as whilst the CPL space still seems a bit of a state, I think the “normal” part of affiliate marketing — your CJs, Rakutens, Awins, and other US affiliate networks — is very similar to the UK.
What I think you do see a lot more of is cross-border shipping; something that led to us launching in the China market back in 2015 and this is a huge growth area for us. This brings it’s own challenges such as delivery, currency, bulk buys, freight forwarding, tax, vat, the list is endless… but the Asia markets are where we think the big growth is going to happen in affiliate marketing over the next few years and a lot of that is being driven by USA brands.
Another other major difference is the importance of attending some of the conferences such as Rakuten’s Dealmakers and CJUs – in the UK most advertisers are based in London or a few hours away so our partnerships staff are in meetings with clients every single day, whereas in the USA these meetings are in general at the shows. Getting face to face time with a client is just so important as the relationships you build in this industry can really help with getting the best deals.
Next up is the retailers themselves – when we originally launched in the USA we did this from our UK office and it was a number of years before we employed a US team.. This worked well but realistically we had no idea the difference between a Sears and a Macy’s or Bloomingdales so opening our office in New Jersey certainly helped here as we were able to market better to customers and really have a much better idea of what we were selling and who to.
GP: What can affiliate marketing in the US learn from the UK, in your opinion? (1-3 important things)
JL: One of the big things I’ve seen talked about in the USA recently is the importance of “new to file” customers and the major networks have been working on tech to allow affiliates to be paid out different commissions based on the type of customer generated.
In theory, when this has been discussed it’s been talked about as a positive thing – I remember on a network advisory board last year where this was billed as a great way of getting even higher commissions from advertisers which in theory is great – we all want more money to be spent in the channel after all. My warning to others reading this article however is that in the UK I feel we made too many allowances to advertisers as an industry and this has actually reduced spend on some occasions.
Advertisers started customers only and it’s something that we’ve recently had to take a stand on as a business, letting advertisers know that we need to provide cashback for all customers – no matter if they are new or existing. Something to keep an eye out for as one of the greatest aspects of affiliate marketing is the fact it’s so measurable, but it’s also the downfall of the channel sometimes; after all, you can’t pay less to the TV network when running an advert based on new vs. existing customers, so why should we think it’s acceptable in the affiliate space?
I’d also go back to the work I mentioned that the IAB have done in the UK. I know that the PMA have some exciting plans and I think it’s really important that as an industry we try and improve the perception of the channel as we need to ensure that the senior management at advertisers see affiliate marketing in a positive light so the more work we can do to show what a great channel it is the better.
GP: In the course of the past few years, you’ve been running the AffiliateHuddle conference in London. How is it different from PerformanceIN Live or any other affiliate marketing events out there?
JL: So the AffiliateHuddle is a huge passion project of mine. It’s something that takes up a huge amount of my time outside of work in the run up but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I run it with Kelvin who runs BrightonSEO which is the biggest search conference in Europe, attracting over 4,000 attendees.
There are two big aspects that I’m really proud of what we’re doing with the Huddle:
- The first is that it’s free for everyone and I hope it always remains this way; learning more about the market should not come at a cost. This means we are fully supported by our sponsors and could not run the show without them but it’s not like Adtech – there are only around 10 stands so there is no huge exhibition space where you’re going to be sold to all day. It also means you have to go and buy your own lunch.
- The second thing to highlight is the actual content itself – I started the Huddle because it felt like there was a need for more talk about the channel; PI Live is a great show where earlier in October we sent over 20 of our staff to attend, but it’s also moved away from being just about affiliates so some of the topics and talks were less relevant to the industry. At the Huddle we do have and will continue to cover a few other topics such as Influencer Marketing, but in general it’s still primarily an affiliate marketing show and always will be.
We had some amazing feedback last year on the content and every year I feel the show gets better – you can’t pay to be on stage and I’ve had to turn away sponsorship money where this was insisted and content is voted for by our advisory board; making sure that it’s relevant and interesting. I want people to come away from the show with takeaways and I think we’re getting better at doing this. I also want people to come away having made some great connections and really just having a fun, insightful day out of the office. If I can achieve that, I’ll sleep well.
Next year we’ll be celebrating the 7th show and we’re planning on making it bigger still, moving to a new location where we can move from 500 to over 800 attendees… who knows what the show holds for the future – two days perhaps? Launching in other markets such as the USA? All I know is that I love organising the show and I want to keep doing it for many more years to come.
GP: What are the top criteria that you use when evaluating affiliate programs, deciding whether to work with one or not? If the fact that you’re a cashback affiliate dictates your choice(s), how and why?
JP: This is a difficult one as we basically work with everyone that will allow us to offer cashback! There are a few categories we generally stay clear of – adult, gambling, alcohol, vaping, and some bits of finance such as payday loans but other than that we will list as many advertisers as possible. We want to offer choice and unlike other sites we don’t charge people a setup fee to be listed. This means that in the UK and USA we have around 4,000 advertisers across each site but there are still important areas we look at when working closely with an advertiser:
Because we’re a 100% cashback site, our payment model is different from other sites. We essentially pay as soon as we get paid by the advertiser – so payment and validation speed is really, really important. If someone is going to take 6 months to pay us, it’s not just bad for us but it’s bad for the customer and leaves them with a really bad experience which means they might not shop with us, or with the advertiser again. This is becoming more and more of a consideration for us when working in partnership with advertisers.
When we run promos across our site, in addition to working on a paid placement, we also ask for an exclusive, best in market cashback rate. We have always been known as the most generous cashback sites and we were the first to go live in the USA offering a 100% cashback model, unlike someone like Ebates who keeps 40-50% for themselves. So all that commission you pay us goes straight to the customer – we don’t keep a cent. Again this is another key focus for us as we want to make sure that the offers we’re promoting are the best for our members and we’ve seen some great success in securing the best rates over Q4 with some of our advertisers. I think advertisers genuinely appreciate that all that money is going back to the customer, which increases their spend and loyalty.
Cashback has to be available to everyone – so like I mentioned earlier in the post we won’t work with someone on a new customer only basis, other than perhaps on a few exclusions like subscription services, insurance, etc.
We’re not in this for a quick buck – we’ve had advertisers that have come to us offering us lots of money to be at the top of the homepage, etc but where we’ve felt it won’t work for them. We’ll be honest and turn people away if we think our customers won’t be interested so we do try and make sure that the offer itself is one that’s attractive to our audience.
Finally I think the important thing for us is that we want to be an advertisers partner. Affiliate marketing has always been talked to about it being an extension of the advertisers marketing team – we still believe this and we love to have close relationships with our advertisers but this does work both ways.
GP: What is the “number one” thing that you wish every brand with an affiliate program did or did better?
JL: Paid faster and validated quicker.
So many advertisers can be slow to validate and pay – it’s one of my biggest frustrations. To win business affiliate networks, certainly in the UK, have had to agree to 60 or 90 day payment terms and a race to the bottom is benefiting nobody.
Ignoring our business for a moment where this issue causes customers to get paid later, slow validations or payments puts of new affiliates hugely from working in the space. Imagine example you’re an influencer who goes to give affiliate marketing a try… you might be used to getting paid within 7 days from your suppliers in the influencer space and all of a sudden you have to wait over 30 days for the sale to even be confirmed, then you might have to wait for months, months (!!) to be paid… yet we still hear people in the industry go on and on about how we need more publishers using affiliate marketing to make revenue!
Imagine you’re a paid search affiliate, or if you’re using paid search to drive traffic to your site – not sure google would say “Don’t worry about paying us, we won’t mind waiting 6 months for you to get your commission” – it causes turnover issues and it can put people out of business.
GP: What 3 ingredients of affiliate marketing success can neither an affiliate, not a brand succeed without? Feel free to split these into two lists: one for affiliates and one for brands.
1. Relationships & Partnerships
I can’t bang on about this one enough. I love telling stories and using examples and this interview will be no exception so here goes.
My first year at CJU there is one meeting I remember vividly and will never forget. I was meeting with an advertiser who were at the time probably one of the biggest on our site, we were doing millions of dollars of sales for them every month but this was the first time we were meeting them as a business face to face. We had 15 minutes booked in and I was telling him the TopCashback story and as I came to the end of the meeting I asked about a CPA increase, again explaining that it’s all going to go to the customer, and the response was “I’ve met you now – happy to do an increase”; so a few weeks later we were offering almost DOUBLE the amount of cashback to our customers and much more than any other cashback site.
Whilst in a way this might sound ridiculous; why did he need to meet us after all? it is still how a lot of business is done. It’s also important not to underestimate that these relationships are partnerships – which means that both sides should be always be transparent. A few times in recent years I’ve got really frustrated when an advertiser has ended their relationship with no notice for example – or done some form of testing without getting us involved in the process.
Another example that sticks out is that we had a large telecoms provider in the UK that had been trying to measure quality of the customers we generated, compare the cost per sale and the impact this had on their business. We were not aware that this was going on until we got told by our account manager one day that the advertiser was going to lower our CPA and might remove us from the programme entirely and apparently there was nothing we could do about it. We challenged this and in the end found out that they had made an error in the excel calculation; if we hadn’t have pushed and challenged their decision we would have lost one of our biggest advertisers from the site.
So I guess what I’m trying to say here is that we always try and be transparent with our advertisers. We’re always pretty responsible. We know what we’re doing and we know the cashback space pretty well. So if you want to do more, if you want to learn more, anything really, then engage with us, we’re always here to help and I’m sure other publishers will feel the same.
Sometimes the affiliate world can seem fairly static, going back to the question around the Huddle earlier, one of the biggest challenges on organising this conference is getting fresh, useful content as it’s very different from something like SEO with the regular Google updates keeping everyone on their toes. But it does change a lot.
From a TopCashback perspective, we have over 30 developers who are constantly evolving our site, our app, building white labels, etc. This week we’ve gone live with a new homepage that we’re split testing across our large audience and trying to understand the impact of – this kind of stuff, trying to find ways to increase conversion and generate more sales for our advertisers happens all the time. Plus we’ve built an insights team who are responsible for enabling us to access and process far more data and reporting that ever before – again this is all positive for our retailers as for example, it means we can provide far greater market share data. But it’s not just us.
Let’s look at the coupon space in the UK for another example of change and innovation. The results are ever changing – huge brands such as The Telegraph and the Mirror (who are large newspaper organisations) have got involved in affiliates by launching a white label coupon sites. Google is ranking them well and it’s spawned some huge businesses in just months who now offer this as a service and it is having a huge impact on who are the top publishers in this space. The word on the grapevine is that RetaileMeNot’s voucher code site in the UK, VoucherCodes.co.uk, is seeing its share of voice drop as these newspaper sites start to take more of their rankings.
Plus you have people like RevLifter who are starting to use AI technology to be clever around the codes provided to customers. Some affiliate networks are building their own similar tech.
I’m sure there are many more examples of how change and innovation is happening so my advice is that advertisers should see how they can benefit from this and publishers should make sure that they don’t just sit still when they think the good times are rolling as if they do, they could end up regretting that decision for years to come.
Another example of innovation is that some of the the campaigns we see run through affiliates are getting bigger and better. TopCashback in the UK, along with a few other publishers, recently ran a huge brand campaign for a large travel brand called TUI. They were changing their name from Thomson to TUI and what I love is that as a large advertiser they saw the value in getting their affiliates to help them with this rebranding. We worked hard to educated customers about the change in innovative ways and even bought on board a travel content writer to write destination reviews that we could use in the campaign. This work led to TUI and CJ winning awards for the campaign and I expect it will be used as a great example of a brand really engaging with affiliates and innovating within the space for many years to come as the results were phenomenal and much above their expectations.
3. Fair Play
When I joined TopCashback one of the first questions I asked the owners was what they felt our USP was as a cashback site vs our main competitor and their answer was our fair play policy. Whilst I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s a USP for us, I think it’s still a really important way of doing business in this channel and we consider everything we do so carefully because of this policy.
Our commitment is to keep this up – we will as a business continue to treat our advertisers, our staff, our members in a fair and honest way.
And I’d like to see all the industry do the same thing. Let’s think about the decisions we make and make sure that we’re being fair and honest and lets be transparent about this. In general, I think this actually happens which is why I love the industry so much but we should all make sure that we keep to this spirit as it will be a huge factor in it’s growth.
GP: What would you do differently had you had a chance start everything all over again?
JL: I’m not sure there is much I would change as I’m a huge believer that everything in life happens for a reason. Whilst I’ve personally made mistakes, as I am sure we have as a business, I feel both I and we have learnt lessons and come out even stronger because of it.
Perhaps, if I could go back in time one of the things I’d do is try and encourage us as a business to have launched in the USA earlier than we did – or at least take it really seriously from day one rather than perhaps year two or three. The market is a huge opportunity for us and I can only see further growth ahead as we continue to expand our membership numbers. But guess what, hindsight’s a bitch.